Sunday, October 25, 2009

22 Months Off. 6 Months On. The TV Saga Continues.

You may remember that we were about 22 months without a TV . Then, back in April, right before I headed to China for a few weeks (and Sara was in her last two weeks of pregnancy), we caved, bought the TV and DVD player, hooked up the cable, and rejoined the ranks of the Mainstream American Television Consumer.

Well, after six months, we're pulling the plug again. Technically, not on the TV, just the cable. This time around the reason is not due to a lightening storm. Rather, it's a combination of things: part financial (really, $75 to watch TV in my own home every month?), part dissatisfaction with garbage programming, part avoidance of all those commercials.

Don't get me wrong, we were very select in what we let the kids view: primarily PBS, sprinkled with a dose of the National Geographic, Science, Green, and Discovery channels. But even still, we were amazed on how influential the few commercials they saw were. Case in point: My four-year-old daughter telling me out of the blue one day "Daddy, don't hide it, solve it." in reference to my graying hair and some men's product she saw.

No way are we going to have our children be the foot-soldiers for a legion of advertisers. We have a responsibility to protect our children from succumbing to the lure of consumerism so early in life. Our little planet cannot afford to raise yet another generation of "stuff"-mongers. We must do more with less; be satisfied and thankful for what we have; not yearn for the empty happiness that buying and using more brings; avoid being another cog in the wheel of planned obsolescence.

Alas, we look forward to the blank stares and silly questions from people who cannot fathom the thought of no cable (even the Cox representative on the phone asked Sara, "What are your going to do for TV?" when she canceled in). We are OK with it and so are the kids. Not once have they inquired about why they can't watch their shows anymore. Instead, we've been busy dusting off some board games, popping some popcorn, and having a healthy dose of unplugged fun together. Cadoo anyone?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

99% Vegetarian

Our diet has never been heavy in the meat category. Chicken, fish, the occasional pork or ground turkey would grace our plates; beef had been cast away for the past couple of years. Overall, Sara and I estimate that we were already around 75% vegetarian.

But a couple of weeks ago, we dove into the deep end and committed ourselves to a MMM (mostly meatless meals) lifestyle by ramping up to 99% vegetarian. The only hold out: bacon (for Sara) and the occasional fish. I've been totally meat-free for three weeks, so it will be interesting how I handle the next wave of seafood fare.

The two oldest kids (6 and 4) present an interesting dilemma. We have decided to not force them to give up meat -- both for dietary reasons and the fact that we want to encourage the maturation of their decision making. But they have been fine, taking in a chicken nugget here and turkey sandwich there. We're grateful that their young palettes are so willing to try new things.

All of the success so far goes to Sara and her prowess in the kitchen. It's amazing what can pull together; it keeps things interesting and far from routine. We've tapped into a few new cook books from the library, as well as getting some newbie tips from this starter guide at Vegetarian Times. The bonus: Our grocery bills are down a bit because we're buying a lot of staples (beans, legumes, rice) in bulk. And we're squeaking out the last bit of fresh veggies from the local seasonal harvest (and looking ahead to some of the winter time farmers markets to see how we'll keep the local stuff coming).

For us, this all makes sense: Healthier eating that is more in line with environment. The toll that the raising, slaughtering, packaging, and shipping of animal products is well documented. We hope our little bit of a MMM lifestyle will result in a win-win for our family and the earth.

For some added inspiration, I'm thinking of picking up a few books by Michael Pollan through the inter-library loan system. Has anyone read any of these? Thoughts? Is anyone else out there finding success with a vegetarian lifestyle? Feel free to share your story.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Recycling 101

We're two weeks in to the new No Bin, No Barrel rule here in town and I'm disappointed to see first hand that it's not being enforced.

This morning, I watched as one of my neighbors had their lone trash barrel emptied by Patriot (the waste hauler) with no recycling bins in sight. As I said before, this new rule is only going to be successful if two things happen: Enforcement and Education.

So far, neither appear to be happening. I sent our DPW director an email just now saying just that. If you're going to talk the talk, you have to be ready to walk the walk. Granted, this could be an isolated incident (we'll see next week), but if your front line people (the hauler employees) are not sticking to the plan, then you might as well toss that plan right out the window.

Now for the education:

Most of us know this (I hope), but NOT EVERYTHING IS RECYCLABLE. There was a letter to the editor in this week's Sakonnet Times lamenting that even though this person recycles "pretty much everything" all their toy box plastic from a recent party was not picked up. My guess is that the plastic this person is talking about is neither #1 or #2, which is what we're currently limited to. (Check out the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation's list of recycling FAQs and a copy of their Recycling Don'ts brochure for more how-to. Or this quick tutorial on the plastics numbering system.)

Again, this new rule presented the town with a prime opportunity to engage the community with a recycling education campaign. Maybe that's still in the works? Timing is everything though and from where I sit, time is ticking away.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Inside the Green & Solar Cottage

Last Saturday, a few of us headed down the road to the Green & Solar Cottage (map) open house, sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, to learn more about this exciting little property.

I've known the owners, Frank and Holly, for a few years now, but this was the first chance I've had to get inside and see how they are harnessing the sun (and a few other things) to generate power, hot water, and lessen their overall environmental footprint.

For me, this all just makes sense. When done properly, building green or adding green features to your home doesn't have to break the bank. Many times, it is cost-competitive with traditional building techniques, but with the added bonus of a long-term positive return on your investment. Now, coming up with the cash to front all of this is another story entirely...

Here are some pictures from the tour along with some commentary. For more info (details on the design, rental availability, contact), visit their website.

Facing south, you can see the solar domestic hot water collector on the roof and the 1,800 kilowatt PV (photo voltaic) solar panel array. While we were there the water temperature on the roof was 105 degrees, helping to keep the water in the in-house storage tank right around the same temperature. This water is used not only for washing but the radiant heating system as well. As Frank says, the system "heats it when you need it", utilizing an electric-powered on-demand heater unit to boost the temperature of the water to a slightly higher temperature only when the time is right. This way, you are not wasting energy keeping large volumes of water at a certain temperature 24x7.

Here, Frank is standing in the "control room" up on the second floor and talking us through how the system works. His hands are on the aforementioned water storage tank. You can make out a bit of the on-demand heater unit off his right shoulder. (This was my first time shooting pictures with my new phone -- forgive the learning curve.). The total cost of the system installed (he did it himself, saving on labor) was around $4,500. He expects the system to pay for itself in energy savings in just a few years.

This shot shows a cross section of a SIP (Structurally Insulated Panel) panel, which all the walls of the cottage are built with. The SIPs are highly efficient when it comes to insulating for heat retention, low air infiltration, and noise deadening. The bonus: The panels are manufactured here in Rhode Island out of recycled materials, lessening the environmental impact of the structure all the more. The cottage has only been fully operational since January 2009, but Frank and Holly estimate total energy costs for the 1,000 square foot house will be around $520 for the entire year. Not too shabby.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Take the October Poll!

Just a reminder that our new monthly poll is up. (Look to the top right portion of the page.)

Have you ever wished you could meet up with other like-minded, eco-conscious neighbors and share experiences and know-how? Looking to learn more about a particular green topic and value the first-hand experience that someone else may have?

I'm trying to gauge interest in forming a more dynamic -- yet informal and relaxed -- community (virtual or in-person) and would value your input and interest. Take the poll, comment on the post, or drop me an email! Thanks.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

THS Students Learn About Greening Their School

Our September poll asked: How would you green our schools?

The results (based on six responders; hey, it's a start...), clearly lean towards enabling our students with education rather than trying to tackle the problem through infrastructure:
  • 83% voted for enhancing the eco-education curricula
  • 66% felt retro-fitting with energy efficient components was the way to go
  • Finally, there was a three-way tie for the remaining options with 50% giving the thumbs up for exploring on-site renewable energy solutions, increasing the amount of local food on the menu, and/or enhancing recycling and composting efforts.
But what do THS students think?

Last week, members of THS' Green Team attended the Sustainable Schools Summit in Providence with their faculty sponsor, Eric Marx*. The event, hosted by The Apeiron Institute for Sustainable Living, allowed students to interact with professionals from across the green school spectrum as well as peers from across the state. Eric sent me a copy of the press release they put together afterwards. Here is what some of the student attendees had to say about their experience:
"At the R.I. Sustainable Schools Summit I attended a workshop on Nutrition and the Farm to School System put on by KidsFirst, an organization which works to make school lunch more nutritious.  Today in schools it’s mandated that 50% of all grains be whole wheat and many of the unhealthy food options have been eliminated.  The aim of this workshop was to try to incorporated local farm products into our everyday lives.  The importance of buying local was emphasized greatly.  Farm Fresh RI and the Market have developed a service and are now attempting to supply “non-stop” convenience store with fresh produce from local farms.  Since Tiverton doesn’t have a grocery store, this may be something the Green Team could look into because Green Team isn’t just about increasing the sustainability of the school but the community as well."
>> Chantal Galipeau
"'Tools for Schools' is a system that works to create better indoor air quality.  It has been discovered that bad air in schools has actually affected the health of people who breathe it on a daily basis.  Both teachers and students have gotten sick from the pollutants in the air.  Tools for Schools proposes that schools should seek a solution to the air problem.  They recommend putting dehumidifiers and other air cleaners throughout the school. This small act can reduce the amount of “bad air” greatly.  The better the air, the better the health of the people who breathe the air."
>> Lauren Rollings
"I attended the workshop entitled “Smaller Footprints = Big Savings” and learned about things schools and households are doing to limit their impact on the earth while saving money in the process.  Many schools are starting to appoint “energy managers” to the staff; in fact we heard earlier in the morning from Karen Verrengia, an energy manager for the Cranston School Department who ran this workshop and shared ideas and resources through which she has saved tens of thousands of dollars for Cranston taxpayers and untold harm to the earth. Free services include, which brings awareness to elementary schools through “Max Man” visits and lessons, as well as, , and which all help individuals, families and schools track energy use.  I hope to explore with The Green Team this year things we could do here at the high school including fixing thermostats and monitoring more closely light usage."
>> Maddie McGreavy
"The No Child Left Inside Coalition (NCLI) was recently established to improve environmental literacy----or the understanding of the systems of the natural world---in Americans.  This group aims to improve student achievement through hands-on outdoor activities that contribute to healthy lifestyles.  Currently, they are hoping to pass the NCLI Act which will help fund and support schools with new environmental education.  If this act is passed the country will receive $100 million per year for five years to incorporate environmental education activities into schools.  Along with the RI Partnership for Children in Nature, NCLI Coalition plans to develop a curriculum for elementary schools this Fall.  For more information visit"
>> Alex Azevedo
Beyond the students, Eric has his eye on partnering with several colleagues to develop a new multidisciplinary unit on the environment this year, inspired by attending the “Growing the Green Curriculum” session at the conference.

I'm extremely encouraged by what The Green Team is doing and hope that we all can find ways to support their efforts. Now that our oldest is in the first grade, I'm interested in exploring what can be done at the elementary level to bolster eco-education curricula and keep the pipeline of next-generation eco-caretakers strong.

(*Full Disclosure: Eric is Sara's cousin as well as being a long-time friend of mine.)